A Five-Course Dinner for Donors: Menu & Prep

July 25, 2019

“Chef Will Cook for Donations to the Fund for Authentic Journalism”

Here’s What I Prepared This Week for Some Who Came All the Way Up This Mountain Road to Dine

By Al Giordano

A couple of years ago during a fundraising drive I offered some gift rewards for donors of certain levels and one of them was a dinner for two cooked by yours truly. Back then I lived in Mexico City – now I live in the mountains of Mexico – and the winner of that reward wrote to ask if the offer was still good.

“Of course it is,” I replied, “with the caveat that I’ve changed location but if you can come a bit more distance I’ll be thrilled to host you here where I am.” He and his companion took me up on it and arrived yesterday for the dinner. Here is the menu that was served:

The sushi balls are easy if one has, A. an electric rice cooker (the Aroma brand appliance I use cost just $27 new) and, B. some California-grown Calrose rice. It’s the rice a lot of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and other Asian restaurants in North America serve and, having taken the US West Coast by storm in 1948 has come to be considered a delicacy in much of Asia as well.

It’s important, in my experience, to remove it from the cooker the moment it is done and add, per cup of rice grain used, one tablespoon of rice vinegar and one tablespoon of some kind of sugar (I like to use maple syrup) and a half teaspoon of salt and stir well away from the heat. As it cools it becomes sticky.

For this dinner I used two cups of grain and, once cooked and mixed with the vinegar, syrup and salt, I removed half the rice into a separate bowl and mixed it with a Chinese-produced kimchi furikake rice seasoning that is commonly available in Asian foods shops. It has wasabi and dried kimchi bits with chili in it and spices up the grain. It also makes the rice stickier because it absorbs more of the moisture, making it even easier to roll the sushi balls.

Not everybody likes the spicy taste of the wasabi and chili so I saved the other half of the rice to make other sushi balls without that level of spice.

A day prior to cooking I put some scissors to a sheet of dried nori seaweed to cut a small section of it into thin strips with which to decorate the sushi balls. Then, on a plate, spread separately garlic sesame seeds, wasabi sesame seeds and more furikaki to top some, but not all, sushi balls with in varied combos.

To form the now-sticky rice into balls I put a polyethylene chef glove on my left hand and a tablespoon in the right one, using the spoon to press down a golf ball sized batch of rice into a tight ball. Then with shrink wrap on a flat surface spooned it out and squeezing any air out of the bubble before using the wrap to perfectly form the ball, twisted the shrink wrap tight using the other hand to create a perfect circle out of the ball.

Here’s a photo from the test dish as example what can be done with these simple ingredient combinations:

For the salad I like to deploy a crisp lettuce – but not an iceberg – something closer to a Romaine but only the crispy middle-level leaves (the outer ones are too soft) as beds or “shells” inside of which to set the rest of the salad. I use a smaller, inside, leaf to prop it up, or two of them (as in the photo below) to serve as pillars, keeping the meal upright.

I use chopsticks to place the ingredients gently because too much force can knock the dish on its side. Gentleness is required for this plate.

The crisp lettuce leaves are stuffed with alfalfa sprouts. Atop those, horizontally, watercress wilted briefly in bacon fat in a cast iron pad until made soft. Atop that, halves of cherry tomato and thin slices of red onion. Atop that, bacon bits (preferably fresh and homemade) and the magic umami dressing. And finally, some sesame seeds for decoration and crunch.

The “magic umami dressing” is a vinaigrette but with a twist: Shaved apple! (One minces it with a plane or fine grater.) It adds a silky consistency to the dressing especially if allowed to sit overnight sealed in the fridge. The dressing also contains minced shallot, garlic and ginger, and a tablespoon of soy sauce, a teaspoon of sugar and salt and pepper to taste. I don’t make or eat salads much – prefer my vegetables cooked – but I ate all this dish:

Another day I’ll do another post here in the kitchen about the third course, glass noodles, because there are so many different variations of the dish from different lands that it deserves a more proper vetting of its own. There’s nothing better than vermicelli or “bean thread” noodles because they so thoroughly absorb the flavors they are cooked in, whether made of mung beans, rice, sweet potato starch or various other vegetable or grain ingredients. They’re the basis of Vietnamese Pho, of Hong Kong’s “Singapore Noodles,” of Korean Japchae, and so many other dishes and I really think the subject deserves a future post of its own here at my Kitchen.

The fourth course – ravioli of foie gras from locally raised duck with wild local field mushrooms and a cherry-thyme glaze – is largely my own innovation. Many chefs use cherry sauces with duck breast or confit. Gordon Ramsay has a superb duck breast recipe with cherry sauce with video available online. But I’m unaware of that kind of sauce being used before with a foie gras ravioli.

I admit I was for years prejudiced against foie gras, just as I was against veal as a meat, having heard of barbaric treatment of the animals by some who make those products. But in recent years more humane methods have taken root. I had the opportunity to visit and inspect a duck ranch in this region this year, where they raise Muscovy Duck (as opposed to Peking Duck this fowl is named after Moscow, and its meat is red, similar in texture and even taste to filet mignon, not white like the Chinese species, which is also superb, just in a different way!).

There’s none of the cruel tubular force-feeding of geese deployed in some of the strict old European methods of making foie gras from goose liver at this local ranch. It, more humanely, makes a kind of pate out the liver of normally raised duck, seasons and then presses it into ravioli. While frozen duck breast, leg or thigh is never recommended and fresh is always of preference, one can safely freeze pate or foie gras (just as one can freeze pork belly) without destroying the flavor because it is so largely consisting of pure fat. The problem with freezing other cuts is that when muscle meat is frozen and then thawed the water breaks down and drains out – and with it the flavor flows out, too. But with paté or foie gras or any kind of fatty tissue these are not fibrous cuts. So freeze away without worry and thaw when ready to cook (and if it’s already in a ravioli, that’s a pasta always better put in the boiling water while frozen because it retains its texture that way).

For the mushroom part of the dish, if wild mushrooms are not in season dried ones will work, or fresh button mushrooms, sautéed with garlic, shallot, butter, maybe a little bacon or duck fat and some kind of alcohol from the sherry or brandy family and once soft removed from the heat.

For the cherry glaze pit fresh cherries – I mount them on an empty wine bottle and use the wide end of a chopstick to push out the pit, pitting five or six per serving – and sautée them with a tablespoon of sugar, minced ginger, garlic and more brandy or cherry (red wine will also do but will give it a darker flavor, some like that, I prefer the lighter step, which the ginger brings out), a little salt and pepper and, voila, there’s your glaze. Lightly spoon it over and around each ravioli (one or two ravioli per plate) before placing the sautéed mushrooms on one side of it, as in this photo:

Note: This is an extremely filling dish. And after dining on the first four courses, the sushi balls, red snapper sashimi, salad, glass noodle soup and the ravioli, my guests were already quite full. Sensing that – because a proper host always pays attention to one’s guests – I asked them if they wanted the pork chop or if they wanted to go straight to the apple strudel and ice cream dessert and they indicated the latter. (The puppies here and I ate brined and pan fried pork chops for breakfast this morning.)

Brining pork or poultry is pretty simple: One part sugar (or honey or a sweet syrup), one part salt, and then strong herbs and spices like anise, garlic, rosemary, thyme, allspice, et cetera, heated until the salt and sugar dissolves, but then cooled (if time is short, use ice) before soaking the meat in it for four to twenty four hours. I like to add a pear or apple to the brine with pork for the fruit enzymes to further break down the toughness of the meat (apple and pear enzymes are less aggressive than those of papaya, kiwi or pineapple which if brined too long can turn your meat into mush). In my test dish I used pear:

After removing it from the brine, patting it dry with paper towels, I sprinkled equal parts salt, pepper and sugar on each side (the sugar helps carmelize the meat and fat, as seen in this photo) before placing it in a hot cast iron pan with just a wee bit of grape seed oil (an oil that can burn hot without smoking).

Once each side is seared I lower the flame, add chopped garlic, shallot (or red onion) and butter (without salt) and sage leaves, spooning the liquid onto the chop and flipping it to do so with both side. Important: Remove from heat onto a plate and let it rest for five or ten minutes before serving. That way when the diner cuts into it the flavor won’t drain out with liquid.

The apple strudel and homemade ice cream served for dessert were made by my Mexican-Austrian neighbor, so I can’t take credit for that. One day I’ll visit him with a camera and capture his technique for y’all. Until then the only innovation I can say I added to it was to pour a splash of Xtabentún (a honey and anise liquor from Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula) or a locally made coffee liquor over the ice cream on the plate. (Any sweet digestif will work.)

You may have noticed there was not much spicy chili in these dishes, at the request of my guests, so I didn’t cook Mexican, as is a regular menu here. We aim to please whoever is our guest.

So that was this week’s multi-course donor dinner. You can come to my home and I’ll rustle up something similar according to your tastes – or if you bring me to your home I’ll serve one there, in accordance with your own dietary preferences (I do carnivore, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, paleo, omnivore, snout to tail, cuisines I’ve learned from multiple cultures on this good earth, whatever works for you) – for a donation of $500 or more to the nonprofit Fund for Authentic Journalism.

I think it’s a lot of money for a single dinner, at a price that in most seasons I could not personally afford, but for this worthy cause I’m happy to cook it for anyone who can (I do regularly concoct meals like this for my friends who can’t, too, so why not do it as an incentive for donations, too?). My guests last night seemed to enjoy it. They tipped me $100 in cash at the end. A twenty percent tip. I’m going to use that part for myself like any self respecting cook and bottle washer would do. Salud!

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